Prelude

Corla came back to conſciouſneſs ſlowly, the heat and the coarſeneſs of the ſand on which ſhe ſat penetrating her mind. She gingerly ſtood up. Her legs ached from holding the meditative poſe for ſo long.

One down, two to go, ſhe thought to herſelf. By the Six gods of Tinellb, I’ll be glad to finiſh this and have ſome peace. She allowed herſelf to feel grief for a moment, grief at being continually ſeparated from her beloved.

Realiſing that activity was the ſureſt way to finding him again, ſhe ſtood up to take ſtock of her ſituation. Underneath the thin layer of ſand, ſhe could feel paving ſtones. Only natural ſounds could be heard, and the ſenſe of human life was far diſtant.

A road perhaps. At leaſt, I hope ſo. The ſun could be felt over her left ſhoulder. Is it ſunriſe or ſunſet? Am I facing eaſt or weſt?

The ſtrongeſt ſenſe of life was oppoſite the ſun. She couldn’t tell how far, but ſhe realiſed that nothing was going to be ſolved by ſitting ſtill.

She unfolded her cane and carefully began following the roadway away from the ſun.

* * *

Market week! Toreſh’s heart ſang within her. That glorious time to take goods down to the flatlands, trading olives and goat cheeſe for wheat flour and papyrus. A chance to meet exotic people and get away from the hillfolk for a time. A chance to exchange the familiar ſmells of goat and heath for the ſcent of the ſilty river.

She finiſhed helping her parents fill the wagon. She had helped in the goat pens ſince ſhe learned to walk, but only been allowed to travel down the hills within the laſt few years.

Piado felt his daughter’s excitement from acroſs the compound. He reached out with his own heart, ſending the pride he felt for her. He farewelled the village elder, and his own wife, and walked acroſs to join Toreſh and the wagon.

With a ſlight touch of the reins to the back of the draughtſbeaſt, the wagon ſtarted moving. Piado was driving for the firſt leg of the journey, following the river gorge down the hills. The river could be ſeen far below, little more than a trickle at this time of year. Toreſh’s initial excitement faded as ſhe was lulled into ſleep by the gently rocking wagon. Piado encouraged her ſleepineſs becauſe he knew he would need her awake if they were to beſt the flatlanders.

There was no one on the road. The only ſounds were thoſe made by the wagon and the draughtſbeaſt.

As the wagon came around a corner, Piado checked the draughtſbeaſt’s movement juſt in time to avoid a ſhort figure. He ſtarted yelling at her to move, but ſtopped when ſhe raiſed ſightleſs eyes to him.

“I’m ſorry for yelling at you, but what are you doing out here by yourſelf? Are you loſt?”

Words in an alien language were his only reply. Handing the reins to his ſuddenly very alert daughter, he got out of the wagon. He had aſsumed her to be a flatlander ſince he couldn’t ſenſe her emotions, but realiſed otherwiſe when he noticed the paleneſs of her ſkin. He reached out for her hand, placed it on his cheſt, and ſaid his own name. Moving her hand back to her, he learned her name.

“Corla.”

Piado led the woman over to the wagon and introduced her to Toreſh. He motioned to his daughter to move acroſs to allow Corla to aſcend.

* * *

Within only a few hours in this world, Corla had found herſelf firmly enſconced between the two farmers. The reſt of the day was ſpent travelling. She dozed in her ſeat, letting their converſation paſs through her.

As night fell, Piado choſe a place beſide the road to reſt. Dinner was a ſpiced lentil ſtew, prepared by Toreſh. Piado gave his tent up to the ſtranger, and ſlept in the wagon covered with the tarp.

The ground was chill the next morning, but the bright ſun ſoon evaporated the froſt and warmed the air.

The wagon reached the market town of Luſov early in the afternoon. Piado ſtayed with Corla and the wagon as Toreſh ſought out the market authorities to reſerve her place in the bazaar.

“Piado, I wanted to thank you for everything you’ve done for me.”

Piado let out a ſtartled exclamation. “I thought you couldn’t ſpeak! Why didn’t you ſay ſomething before?”

“It took me ſome time to learn your language. I’m not an empath the way your people are, I’m a telepath.”

“Our people? Where are you from?”

“This may be a little difficult to explain. Do you know anything about your hiſtory? Your ultimate hiſtory, perhaps?”

“A telepath? What am I thinking right now, then?”

“My abilities only ſeem to work properly on my own people,” Corla replied. “I can pick up enough to tell me where population centres are, and apparently to pick up your language, but that is it.”

Piado rolled his eyes in diſbelief. He ſwung his legs out over the ſide of the cart, grunting as he did ſo. Once he was on the ground, he graſped Corla’s hand and helped her off.

He led her to a two-ſtorey ſtone building on the main ſtreet of Luſov. A quick ſcan of the building’s manifeſt told him where he was going. In a room at the end of the corridor, they found a woman ſitting behind a deſk. She was wearing the officious robes that the flatlanders wore for formal occaſions. Piado explained his ſide of the ſtory, but before Corla had a chance to ſpeak, the bureaucrat rang a ſmall bell. Her aſsiſtant appeared from a ſide door.

“Is Tepeth awoken from her nap yet?” ſhe was aſked.

The aſsiſtant nodded, and then left the room at a geſture from the official.

“Her Honour will take care of this,” Piado was informed. “Kolina, is it? Come with me.”

Piado attempted to follow, but was prevented from doing ſo by the cloſing of the door behind the departing pair. He forgot each time he was among his own people how rude theſe were. Realiſing there was nothing further to do, he went back to the draughtſbeaſt and his waiting daughter.

* * *

Corla was puſhed along the paſsageway, trying not to trip on anything. She heard a door being opened ahead of her and could tell from the echoes around that ſhe was now in a ſmall room. The official unceremoniouſly led her to a bench, ſat her down, and then left again.

Alone in the room, Corla got up and felt her way around the wall. She opened both doors, one at a time, but no one anſwered her calls. Standing at a tall window, ſhe could ſmell the city and feel the noonday ſun upon her face.

She was juſt about to try the doors again when one was opened from the outſide.

The aſsiſtant’s voice ſaid ſomething in her own language, and Corla told her in Piado’s tongue that ſhe could not underſtand her.

“Oh, ſo you only ſpeak Fezhlê, do you?” ſhe ſaid, ſwitching to that. “I juſt aſked if you were hungry. You’re lucky to have me; I’m the only one around here who bothered to learn from our northern neighbours. You don’t look like a Topper, I beg your pardon, like a Toplander. Were you not told about the food there on the counter?”

Taken aback by the ſudden ſtream of words, Corla could only ſhake her head.

“People around here! So inconſiderate! Like ſhe expects a blind perſon to juſt know that there’s food here. On behalf of the Council, I apologiſe. Anyway, my name is Lharen. Beſi ſaid you were Kolina?”

She corrected her, and then ſaid that ſhe was actually hungry.

“Where have my manners gone now? I’m juſt as bad as they are, aſsuming that you’ll juſt find the food on my ſay-ſo. Corla? That’s an unuſual name.”

Corla ſmiled in her direction and ſhe came up and took her over to the counter, where indeed ſat a box of biſcuits and a ſtore of warm water. Lharen put ſomething ſhe could ſmell into a cup of the water, and ſhe gathered her thoughts to explain her ſtory.

* * *

While waiting for her father to return, Toreſh ſought out their uſual ſleeping place -- a ſmall hotel on the corner. Piado entered the room juſt as ſhe had finiſhed putting their gear away.

“Hey, kiddo. Are you hungry?”

“A little, father,” Toreſh replied. “Is Corla alright?”

“I hope ſo, but it ſeems that ſhe’s their problem now.”

Piado put his arm around his daughter’s ſhoulder and walked her out the door. In the hotel reſtaurant, they ordered ſomething cheap to eat. They knew that tomorrow ſhould bring them more money, and that the next time they dined, they would be able to have ſomething taſtier.

The next day dawned bright and hot. The haze came up as uſual around the large town of Luſov. Piado and Toreſh hurried out of their hotel room and into the market, carrying their wares. Piado ſtood behind their ſet-up table, while Toreſh put on her moſt winning ſmile, trying to get the buſy townſpeople to try their produce. The trading progreſsed throughout the morning. Luſov uſually became too hot around noon, ſo the town uſually went to ſieſta.

The ſun was juſt beginning to ſet when Lharen came by, guiding Corla by her ſide. The aſsiſtant was clearly not here to buy anything.

“What are you two doing here?” Piado aſked, aſtoniſhed.

“It’s her idea, ſir,” Lharen anſwered. “She’s got this idea that meeting you was fated or ſomething.”

“It’s not fate,” Corla corrected her. “I juſt know that what I need to do here, on Zhalad, is ſomething to do with you.”

“What?”

“I’m trying to get home. Every other place I’ve been, it ſeems that I need to complete ſome taſk. I have the ſtrongeſt feeling that you’re involved.”

“What do you want us to do about it?” Piado ſeemed unintereſted.

“Take me with you. I am not afraid of work.”

“With all due reſpect, you’re blind. What uſe could you be to us? I did my charity by bringing you here. Now, I’m done.”

Toreſh could feel his temper growing. She tugged at his ſleeve. “Pleaſe, father, calm yourſelf. I’m ſure we can find ſomething for her to do. It’s not that difficult to talk to cuſtomers.”

Corla ſpoke up. “I do actually have cuſtomer experience. I may even have a ſlight advantage; you can’t ſenſe flatlander emotions. I can. Well, at leaſt, my abilities ſhould be able to pick up ſomething.”

Piado capitulated. “Fine. Make yourſelf uſeful and you can ſtay with us. The village council can decide what to do with you when we get home.”

Lharen guided Corla behind the market table, and then took her leave.

The market was clearly cloſing, ſo Toreſh and her father went back to the hotel, taking Corla with them. Corla uſed ſome money ſhe had gained from Lharen to pay for her own dinner, and found herſelf in the bunkhouſe, where ſhe had to ſhare lodgings with a few other people.

Toreſh came around the next morning to take her to breakfaſt, and thence to her firſt day in the Luſov markets.

As ſhe had hoped, Corla got enough impreſsions from the ſwirling thoughts around her to be able to predict which cuſtomers could be perſuaded to part with more currency, and which would be happier to barter. Even Piado was impreſsed, although only his daughter could tell; he did not let it ſhow in his voice. Slowly through the day, their ſtores diminiſhed as they were bought or traded for. The market went on for a couple of days yet, but Piado figured that tomorrow would ſee them finiſhed. He was glad; he didn’t mind the flatlanders on occaſion, but it was very eaſy to become tired of them. He always needed to concentrate more, trying to communicate in words. Still, he reflected, Corla ſeems to be doing what ſhe promiſed. That does make it ſlightly eaſier.

Later that evening, when Piado had gone to bed, the two women remained awake, ſipping their drinks in the bar. Toreſh noticed Lharen ſtanding in the doorway, and motioned her over.

“I hope you don’t mind, Corla, but I invited Lharen out tonight. I don’t get to interact with flatlanders much.” She added an afterthought. “Unleſs I’m ſelling them ſomething, of courſe.”

“No, that’s fine. As long as ſhe makes herſelf uſeful.”

Lharen heard this as ſhe neared the table. “Ha. I get it. Next round is on me, right? I don’t get out much, but I know how the game is played.”

“Don’t get out much? Surely your job means you get to meet a lot of people,” Toreſh ſaid.

“Weren’t you juſt making the ſame complaint?” aſked Corla.

“While I do meet people, but I’m juſt a ſervice, really. They come in when they need ſomething ſigned officially, or whatever. Never had a viſitor from another world, though.”

“Speaking of which, what is that about, Corla?”

“I’m actually ſurpriſed that you’re ſurpriſed, Toreſh. After all, that has to be how both your people and Lharen’s got here.”

“I’m aſhamed to admit that we didn’t treat our ſubject peoples well.” Lharen ſuddenly looked ſtricken. ”My greateſt apologies, that’s juſt how it’s written in our hiſtories. When the Fezhlê came here, they lived under our rule. Part of what we did was to control their preſent by taking away their paſt. It’s only in the laſt few generations that they were even allowed to ſpeak their own language in public. In fact, until then, we were quite ſure that no one ſpoke it at all anymore.”

“My grandfather told me of thoſe times. As much as he had learned, anyway. There were always ſecrets being paſsed around, but I have never heard of anything like Corla is talking about.”

Corla thought back to everything ſhe had learned on the laſt world ſhe had viſited. “I learned much of this on Mala Ptokonoi and Brequé, whence I moſt recently came. On my own world of Tſarein, moſt of this is loſt, too. All our peoples originally ſtarted on one world, but war tore us apart. A weapon was created that broke ſpace-time, caſting our couſins both to this world, and another ſimilar. Lharen’s people, and mine, are deſcended from that ſecond group. I can only aſsume that when the Zhaladi came here, they were able to take control of this land from the original Fezhlê.”

Lharen nodded. “That’s my underſtanding, alſo. We have remnants of tools my anceſtors uſed, but we’re unable to recreate any of them. We can’t even recogniſe moſt of the materials. In hiding the Fezhlê’s paſt, we ſeem to have loſt our own, as well.”

A ſombre mood fell over the table.